Northern Ireland’s First Minister Michelle O’Neill has attended a police graduation – in a first for a Sinn Fein politician.
She was joined by fellow dignitaries, including DUP deputy First Minister Emma Little-Pengelly, at the passing out event at a training college in east Belfast on Friday.
The ceremony came just days after Ms O’Neill became Northern Ireland‘s first Irish nationalist first minister and promised to reach out to unionist rivals.
“I think it is so important that our policing service reflects the diversity of our society that we have,” Ms O’Neill said after the event.
“I said I would be a first minister for all and that includes these new constables that have graduated today.”
Sinn Fein has traditionally been cool in its support of the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI), which replaced the Protestant-dominated Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) under the terms of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.
The RUC was accused of police brutality, sectarianism and collusion with loyalist paramilitaries during The Troubles.
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When the PSNI was established in 2001, some in Sinn Fein said it was too similar to the RUC and stopped short of encouraging Catholics to join.
However, in the last two decades relations between the party and the force have improved.
In 2007, Sinn Fein agreed to join the policing board, which supervises the activities of the PSNI, and in 2020 it publicly backed a recruitment campaign for the service for the first time.
Fellow attendee Justice Minister Naomi Long, from the cross-community Alliance Party, said Ms O’Neill’s presence at the event was “probably long overdue, but certainly a good start in terms of showing commitment to policing and justice”.
PSNI chief constable Jon Boutcher said it was “fabulous” that representatives from the parties had all come to the ceremony.
He added: “We talk about representation, the PSNI needs to represent all of our communities, our emerging communities, all of our communities, so we get their trust and confidence. That’s the journey we’re on.”